Yupik Teen Hunter Receives Death Threats
In April 2017, 16-year-old Agragiiq became a striker. The young Siberian Yupik hunter, whose Western name is Chris Apassingok, stood at the bow of a little metal boat chasing a 57-foot-long female bowhead whale through the icy waters of the Bering Sea. Other boats in his hunting party also chased the 50-ton leviathan, but Chris, known to his friends as Agra, was the closest. The hunters had chased the whale for an hour and a half, intent not to lose her in the dark waters just two miles off the shore of Gambell, a Yupik village on St. Lawrence Island.
The whale would provide tons of food for his family and village, where packaged food was astronomically expensive and the residents desperately poor. Agra trained for this moment from the time he was 5, learning from his father Daniel the skills his ancestors had practiced for 2,000 years.
Agra stood at the bow of the speeding boat, scanning the surface of the water, waiting for the whale to reappear after diving. He held a special darting gun that would fire the harpoon, keeping his eyes intent on where he thought the animal would surface. His village was only allowed eight strikes per year and a strike counted even if the harpoon only grazed the whale. One shot could provide food for all the nearly 700 residents of Gambell, or it could mean one less whale for the village to survive on that year if he missed.
“Please let us get it,” he prayed.
The whale came up right in front of Agra’s boat. Agra went for it. His harpoon hit the whale dead-on. The other boats closed in and finished the job, but Agra’s strike was the first. The whale was his. He was the striker.
The hunting party ritually sampled some of her blubber, according to their tradition, then towed her to shore.
Courtesy Susan Apatiki
Agra Apassingok and others from Gambell, Alaska butcher the 57-foot-long bowhead whale they caught the night before. This was the first time 16-year-old Agra had harpooned a bowhead, although he has been participating in hunts since he was 5. Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, of the failed Animal Planet reality show “Whale Wars,” triggered a flood of vicious messages from his followers harassing Agra when he posted an obscenity-laden rant about the hunt on his personal Facebook page.
Triumph Becomes a Nightmare
News of Agra’s strike went out into the world at lightning speed as his family posted pictures of him and the whale on Facebook. Agra’s mother, Aakapak, whose Western name is Susan, related her joy at her son’s very first whale strike.
“There’s my handsome striker son,” she wrote in a post featuring pictures taken the night of the hunt, “who blesses us over and over through God almighty, who learned from the best dad, Daniel Apassingok, whale captain.”
The next day KNOM Radio Mission in Nome sent out a reporter to interview him and write a story. Within a few days, the story came out.
Then it happened. Agra’s mom saw it first. Paul Watson, founder of the environmental group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and star of the cancelled Animal Planet reality show “Whale Wars,” had posted the story to his personal Facebook page along with a vicious rant, spewing obscenity-laden rage at the 16-year-old boy.
“WTF, You 16-Year Old Murdering Little Bastard!,” Watson’s post read, according to a story in High Country News, “… some 16-year old-kid is a frigging ‘hero’ for snuffing out the life of this unique self-aware, intelligent, social, sentient being, but hey, it’s okay because murdering whales is a part of his culture, part of his tradition. … I don’t give a damn for the bullshit politically correct attitude that certain groups of people have a ‘right’ to murder a whale.”
Courtesy Facebook/Paul Watson
Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conversation Society.
Agra heard about the posting while still at school. By the time he got home, his Facebook account was flooded with vile, hate-filled comments from followers of Watson from all over the world. He showed them to his mother.
“He showed me his messages in his phone,” she said in a video posted on YouTube by High Country News, “calling him names. ‘I hope you choke on blubber, you deserve to die, you need to harpoon your mom’ and stuff like that, wishing him death.”
The messages kept coming, more and more. They tried keeping count at first, but when the number reached 400, they gave up.
Agra Faces a Bigger Beast–Ignorance
Like hundreds of tiny harpoon strikes, the ignorant, hate-filled comments slowly brought Agra down. He became quiet. He rarely spoke. After accomplishing something most people can’t even comprehend, he was reduced in the eyes of the world into an object of hate.
“Chris went through shock, anger, humiliation, and quit going to school after the harassment and threats came from around the world,” his mother wrote in an email to ICMN. “I think Chris cared more for me than he cared for himself. He worried about me because I went through a lot of grief after reading all the posts Paul Watson shared and also the Facebook messages my son received from Paul’s followers.”
No Apology from Watson
The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission contacted Facebook and complained, along with many other Alaska Natives from the Arctic. The post was removed, but a few days later, Watson posted a second rant, refusing to apologize.
Agra began receiving messages of support from all over. Alaska Governor Bill Walker sent him a citation, commending him for his work as a provider for his people. He received a personal phone call from Senator Lisa Murkowski. An event to raise funds to pay for the costs of possible legal action against Watson was staged in Anchorage at which Alaska Native rap artist and homeless advocate Samuel Johnsperformed. Donations paid for the travel expenses for Agra and his mom.
Agra’s mom says he’s doing better.
“My family and I want to pursue legal action, but we don’t know what to do or how much it is going to cost,” she wrote ICMN.
Watson did not respond to an ICMN request for comment. It’s doubtful he could ever have the depth of understanding necessary to appreciate how important bowhead whaling is to the Siberian Yupik. A brochure from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission gives this explanation:
“To our people, the bowhead is more than food. It keeps our families together. It keeps our children in school. It allows our elders to pass generational knowledge to our youth. It teaches us patience and perseverance. It teaches us generosity. It strengthens our community. It provides wisdom and insight. It gives us hope. It is our way of life. The spirit of the whale lives within each of us.”